In honor of the day we thought we’d write about the history of valentine cards. While the Library does not have any actual valentines in its collection, we do have a few works relating to the history of the day, and several auction catalogs with vintage valentines.
Finding the true St. Valentine of Valentine’s day is a little tricky because there are several early Christian saints with that name, but the consensus is that the feast day was created to celebrate Valentine of Rome or Valentine of Terni (assuming they are not the same person). The feast day was added to the calendar in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, who declared they are saints “justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.” That has not stopped people from speculating on their romantic good deeds, such as secretly marrying Christians, cutting hearts out of parchment to remind married soldiers of their vows, and signing letters to the young women they healed “from your Valentine.”
Many writers have attempted to link St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility rite, including Ernest Dudley Chase, author of The Romance of Greeting Cards, however there is no actual evidence to support this. In fact, despite the various romantic hagiographies of the saint, Valentine’s Day did not become associated with romance until Chaucer wrote The Parlement of Foules in 1382:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, / when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”
The poem was written for the anniversary of King Richard II’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia. Chaucer writes as if the idea of birds mating on this day was long-established, but in truth his poem is one of the earliest references to it.
Scholars tracing the history of valentine cards are on firmer ground. Chase details an early reference to creating a card for one’s beloved, citing Samuel Pepys’s mention of the practice in 1667. It did not take long for people to offer their literary services to those unable to come up with a romantic verse on their own, and books like The Young Man’s Valentine Writer and The Beauties of Hymen were published, allowing young lovers to select appropriate rhymes. Chase prints several examples of verse in his work, tailored to every possible situation, some not so amorous. Here is one “To a Venomous Hussy”:
Along with the proliferation of rhymes and verses came the development of the artistry used in creating the cards. Flowers, birds, cupids, and bowers were popular images, and some of the more expensive offerings were embellished with ribbons and tassels, silks, and gilding. It is no surprise, then, that valentines from the 19th century are quite collectible. The Grolier Club has several auction catalogs listing such cards, including a Christie’s South Kensington catalog that shows some lovely examples:
Some of the detail is lost in the group photograph, but the cards represent a variety of techniques: embossing, paperlace, chromolithography, hand-colored images, pop-up elements, silver and gilt details, ribbon and fabric, and dried flowers. Other wonderful examples may be found in the Nancy and Henry Rosin Collection of Valentine, Friendship, and Devotional Ephemera at the Huntington Library.
With the 20th century and the development of the greeting card business, valentines changed. In this country cards developed a distinct American flare, being neither as romantic nor as vicious as some of the examples Chase details. Instead they are “the spirit of friendliness, the up-to-the-minute American humor, clean and wholesome” (Chase p. 74):
Mechanical elements were also popular, such as paper petals to pull from a daisy or pull-tabs that revealed a kissing couple.
The Romance of Greeting Cards is filled with many more delightful examples of valentines; it is well-worth perusing. Perhaps it and the examples in the auction catalogs will inspire you to create your own valentine to give to a loved one.
By Janalyn Martínez
References and further reading:
Ernest Dudley Chase. The Romance of Greeting Cards. Boston: the University Press, 1926.
Geoffrey Chaucer. The Parlement of Foules. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904.
Illustrated Books and Related Drawings: Tuesday 5th June 2001. London: Bonhams & Brooks, 2001.
Postcards, Lots 1-318, Poster Style — Signed Artists — Columbian Exposition; Valentines, Lots 319-356. New York: Swann Galleries, Inc., 1993.
Printed Books, Including Valentine Cards: for Sale by Auction Friday, 8 February, 1991 at 10.30 a.m. London: Christie’s South Kensington Ltd., 1991.
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Valentine’s Day” (accessed February 13, 2020) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine%27s_Day.